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Taking Your Butt to a Higher Level

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A decade ago, a BBL (Brazilian Butt Lift) was a relatively rare occurrence, but in her piece for The Guardian, Sophie Elmhirst discovers that since 2015 the number of butt lifts performed globally has grown by a whopping 77.7%. Kim Kardashian can take a big chunk of the credit for this, as the proud owner of the most famous bottom in the world, “a bottom so scrutinized, so emulated, so monetized, that it no longer feels like a body part, but its own high-concept venture, its own startup turned major IPO.” However, no one knows how long the fashion for a bottom that resembles “a bauble wrapped in skin” will last, or what will happen when it ends. While it remains in vogue, there are many women willing to run the gauntlet of having fat strategically molded into their rear ends — and some have paid for it with their life.

A patient has to wait weeks before they know what their bottom will ultimately look like. The fat takes time to settle, and Glancey has to remind her patients that at best, only about 50% of the fat “takes”. The rest is absorbed by the body and ejected through the lymphatic system. To optimise the amount of fat that survives in the body requires a surgeon’s skill. Glancey compares it to creating a garden: you can’t put plants too close together, they need space to thrive. “When I say this to patients, they just say put more in,” she said. “And I say, well, it doesn’t work like that.” Glancey sticks to the UK guidelines and limits how much she will insert – 300cc per buttock, a little less than a can of Coke. She tells her patients to complete the BBL over more than one operation, adding a little at a time.

In Turkey, the most popular destination for cosmetic surgery patients travelling abroad in Europe – and the third most popular in the world, after Thailand and Mexico – the limits are less conservative. Some surgeons openly advertise on social media that they will insert more than 1,000cc into a patient’s buttocks. Glancey says that she regularly sees patients who have returned from Turkey unhappy with the results, often because a significant quantity of fat has died and left them lopsided or misshapen.

The risk involved in performing a BBL is not only about the quantity of fat, but how it is inserted. (Also, whether it is fat being inserted at all: a number of recent deaths associated with buttock augmentation occurred because the patient was being injected with silicone.) During the operation, the danger occurs at a very precise moment: the insertion of the cannula into the buttock. As it goes under the skin, the cannula has to remain above the gluteal muscle. If it goes below, and fat enters the bloodstream, fat droplets can then coalesce, travel through the blood and cause a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lungs – the cause of death in the case of the British woman, Leah Cambridge, who had a BBL at a private clinic in Izmir in 2018.

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The Big Bear Reading List

Image: Carolyn Wells

Growing up in England, my knowledge of bears largely came from Yogi Bear cartoons, and on a childhood holiday to North America, it wasn’t Disneyland, but the thought of seeing a real-life Yogi that I was most excited about. However, despite my parents stoically driving a hire car down treacherous mountain roads as I lounged in the back bemoaning the lack of performing bears, it never happened.

It wasn’t until I moved to Canada many years later that I saw my first bear. I just turned a corner and there it was, a young black bear casually munching grass, completely unphased by my open-mouthed awe. Several years on, I have seen countless black bears; in fact, they rather enjoy relieving themselves on my front lawn after overindulging in next door’s apple trees. But my childhood wonder of them remains.

I am not the only one drawn to the subject; bears have inspired some wonderful articles, so I’ve compiled a reading list of six stories that not only look at bears, but the emotions and issues that they provoke.

1. Where Now Grizzly Bear? (Brian Payton, Hakai Magazine, January 2021)

In this article, Brian Payton shows grizzly bears to be intrepid explorers “destined to wander” — with male grizzlies swimming up to seven kilometers to find new territories. I found myself hypnotized by a map included in the piece, which tracks a grizzly bear as it travels an incredible 850 kilometers over five months. The positive side of grizzly bears turning up in new places is that, after decades of persecution, their numbers are finally improving and young males are looking to move away from “all these big dudes.” On the other hand, this means potential human conflict: “We know they will coexist with us. Their survival depends on our willingness to coexist with them.”

A bear emerges from dense vegetation and pauses on the shore. It’s early spring, and the young grizzly has only recently roused from hibernation, ravenous and driven. He lifts his head and gazes out across the falling tide to the opposite shore, where forested slopes are close enough to make out individual trees. The bear stands and sniffs the air.

Grizzlies can see about as well as we can, but it’s their olfactory powers—at least 2,000 times more acute than ours—that most likely set them in motion. We’ll never grasp how they perceive the world, let alone what they’re thinking. For some reason, this bear falls back on all fours, ambles away from prime habitat, and wades into the sea.

To reach the far shore, he dog-paddles west across Johnstone Strait, one of the narrowest navigable channels that make up the fabled Inside Passage. This stretch of water separates the North American mainland from the largest island on the Pacific coast, British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. It’s only three to 4.5 kilometers across but anywhere from 70 to 500 meters deep. Swift tidal currents can reach 15 kilometers per hour. Vessels of every description pass through, from kayaks to freighters, to cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers. At this time of year, the water temperature averages about 8 °C, but the bear has almost no fat left to insulate him from the cold.

2. Grizzlies at the Table (Jimmy Thomson, Beside Magazine, December 2020)

One place in which grizzly bears are more prevalent than ever is in Wuikinuxv, British Columbia. Jimmy Thomson’s beautiful piece highlights the respect that this First Nations community gives their frequent visitors. The bears are valued as an important part of the ecosystem: “In eating the salmon, the bears bridge the gap between the deep ocean and the treetops, dragging the wriggling essence of one ecosystem into another.” This article is full of such powerful imagery, and Thomson’s respect for the people who wish to defend these animals is apparent.

Adam Nelson pulls the band’s truck into the small landfill less than a kilometer from the village, as he does three times a week to keep bear attractants out of people’s homes, and honks his horn to avoid startling any nearby bears. He and Corey Hanuse toss the village’s garbage bags into the landfill and wait. Minutes later a large grizzly is tearing the bags apart.

An electrified fence around the landfill, installed at great expense, lasted three days. The bears pulled it open like a can of sardines and it hasn’t been repaired. Later, someone stole the batteries. The bears have become accustomed now to the easy food the dump has on offer, and most days it’s possible to find them snacking amongst the detritus. Better there than roaming the village.

3. Barbearians at the Gate (Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, The Atavist Magazine, May 2018)

Bear intrusions are not so welcome in other areas. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s article documents life in Grafton, New Hampshire, where residents believe “in untethering themselves from institution, foraging for food, and hunting game with guns, arrows, and knives.” Hongoltz-Hetling discovers a deep-rooted conflict in Grafton between man and bear, explaining the drama with a colorful array of local stories — about eaten cats and bear-fighting llamas, for instance — that tell us as much about the characters and colloquialisms of Grafton as about the bears themselves.

With bears reaching peak boogie man status, Hongoltz-Hetling also hears whispers of a darker side to the conflict — vigilante posses embarking on clandestine hunts of bears sleeping in their dens, even though “a person was (and still is) much more likely to suffocate in a giant vat of corn than be killed by a bear.” This article is an intriguing insight into small-town life — told through the bears.

Can bears be calculating? Babiarz and other Grafton residents I spoke to sure seemed to think so. Dave Thurber, a Vietnam War veteran who lives up the road from Jessica Soule, recounted how, one dark winter night, he had a feeling that something wasn’t right. He peeled back a corner of the curtains covering his living room windows and peered out at the front lawn, where he spotted a bear delicately licking sunflower seeds from a bird feeder. When a car approached, the bear flattened itself against a snowbank like an escaping prisoner evading a watchtower spotlight. After the car passed, the bear resumed eating.

Rumors of the bears’ cunning had planted unsettling questions in the minds of Grafton residents: How close are we to a bear right now? Could one be just beyond someone’s front door or hiding behind a nearby tree, casing a pet or, worse, someone’s child?

4. A Death in Yellowstone (Jessica Grose, Slate, April 2012)

How do you manage conflict between humans and bears when it escalates? That’s a dilemma faced by many park rangers. In the Yogi Bear cartoons, Yogi was a cheeky chap who loved to steal the odd picnic basket from guests at his home in Jellystone National Park. In this article, Jessica Grose discovers the stark reality that a fed bear is often a dead bear — for national parks are, ultimately, a human creation: “Its boundaries are built and monitored by the government, and the rangers are responsible for keeping its … visitors safe.” If a bear gets too close, the rangers have to play judge and jury on its life.

This was the case with Grose’s subject — the Wapiti sow — a bear thought to have been responsible for two deaths in Yellowstone National Park. Grose’s piece is a harrowing look at bear attacks and how rangers weigh up a bear’s guilt like a criminal case, with “ non-acidic envelopes for storing evidence, tweezers for picking up multicolored grizzly bear hairs, tape measures for measuring bear tracks.” The death penalty is based on whether a bear was acting in a naturally aggressive way or not. But what exactly is natural? The penal code for wild animals is a hard one to decipher.

Wildlife biologists like Kerry Gunther help the park’s crime-scene investigators by speculating on a bear’s emotional state. Based on the evidence at hand, he tries to determine whether a given act of bear aggression might have been a natural behavior—the result of being startled while feeding on an elk carcass, for example, or seeing someone approaching her cubs. If a bear appears to have followed a hiker down the trail instead of backing off, or if it attacked campers while they were asleep, that would be more unusual—the result, perhaps of a deranged grizzly mind.

In a mauling case like that of John Wallace, in which there are no living (human) witnesses, sorting out these categories of bear aggression can be especially vexing. But there’s one piece of circumstantial evidence that almost always leads to euthanasia: a half-eaten corpse. Under normal circumstances, the grizzly diet in Yellowstone is about 60 percent vegetarian—roots and nuts, with the remainder coming from pocket gophers, trout, elk, and bison. If the rangers have good reason to believe that a bear killed a human being and then consumed his body, that bear’s behavior will be deemed unnatural—and its crime a capital offense.

5. Lessons From a Bear Attack (Eva Holland, Cottage Life, December 2020)

Not all bears are given a guilty verdict after an attack. When Mya Helena Myllykoski and her son were charged by a grizzly bear, the bear received a reprieve for acting naturally to defend a moose carcass. In her interview with Eva Holland, Myllykoski describes her relief that the bear was spared, and how instead of paralyzing her with fear, the attack inspired her to fight to protect bears. Holland explores the fascinating psychology behind Myllykoski’s “post-traumatic growth,” as well as describing the attack itself in spine-tingling detail. Her account demonstrates great respect for the wilderness she is writing about — in a previous piece, “When a Fatal Grizzly Mauling Goes Viral,” Holland discusses her reluctance to report on bear attacks at all: They are incredibly rare, and she questions whether writing about them is anything more than voyeurism for those outside of bear country. This perspective brings sincerity, thoughtfulness, and understanding to her work on the subject.

When she shares that detail—that she has felt a grizzly bear’s hot breath on her face—I feel something unexpected creeping up inside me, a little green shoot alongside the larger growth of fear and fascination as I listen to her story: envy. Irrationally, against all logic or instinct for survival, I envy that experience, just a little. When she tells me that she regrets not having a memory of that smell, I understand what she means. I want to know what the bear smelled like too.

We crave vivid and authentic encounters with the wilderness. That, in part, is why we go out there, why we leave the city behind for an afternoon or a weekend, or more. We want to see the stars turn overhead and hear loons, owls, and coyotes; we want to watch the mist burn off a river’s surface, or a thunderstorm roll across a lake. We want to smell crushed spruce needles and wet, decomposing logs and that sweet dirt scent when the mushrooms begin to pop up.

Wilderness can feed us. It can fill our lives up with rich sensory memories. But we take risks in going there, and we bring risk with us for the animals that live there too. Sometimes we pay a price for our curiosity and our desires—but more often, they pay the price instead.

6. This Man Protected Wild Bears Every Day for 13 Years — Until He Made the Ultimate Sacrifice (Nick Jans, Reader’s Digest, June 2019)

Timothy Treadwell took the meaning of bear advocate to a whole new level. I first learned about Treadwell through watching Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, an incredible film that uses sequences extracted from more than 100 hours of video footage shot by Treadwell during the last five years of his life — years he spent living amongst grizzly bears in Alaska. Nick Jans has also written a beautiful book about Treadwell, The Grizzly Maze, depicting the journey that led Treadwell to the bears, and the stunning, eerie landscape of Alaska that is their home.

In this excerpt for Reader’s Digest, Jans explains how Treadwell was a controversial figure, a self-styled “bear whisperer” who refused to accept bears as dangerous animals, and “gave them names like Thumper, Mr. Chocolate, and Squiggle. He would walk up to a half-ton wild animal with four-inch claws and two-inch fangs, and say, ‘Czar, I’m so worried! I can’t find little Booble.'” Jans provides a moving portrait of Treadwell, culminating in a gut-wrenching description of his final demise — mauled by a bear. Accustomed to recording his life, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, had a camera turned on during the attack: “Treadwell did not die quickly. The tape runs roughly six minutes, and his cries can be heard two-thirds of that time.”

While many believe Treadwell encroached on the life of the bears, rendering his end inevitable, he was still a remarkable, larger-than-life character, and Jans manages to capture him with his elegant prose.

Those searching for the meaning in what happened to Timothy Treadwell offer compelling theories, impossible to either prove or refute but containing flickers of insight. Bear-viewing guide Gary Porter says, “I think Timmy made a fundamental anthropomorphic error. Naming them and hanging around with them as long as he did, he probably forgot they were bears. And maybe they forgot, some of the time, he was human.” Porter points out that old, dominant males generally avoid people and are intolerant of other bears. A subordinate bear that refuses to move is attacked and, if it doesn’t retreat, is often killed and eaten. Biologist Larry Van Daele calls such an event “apparently more of a disciplinary action than predatory.”

And he, too, agrees there may be something to the theory, especially given “the strange, ambiguous signals Timothy sent to bears.”

“Maybe that big guy figured Timmy was just another bear,” Porter suggests. If so, it was a final, ironic compliment to a man who strove, among bears, to become as much like them as possible.

Getting Up When You Fall From the Sky

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Mountains can hold a great allure, and for some, the pull is so strong that they build their whole lives around them. This was the case for Erin Tierney, who left her family and friends to pursue a career as a heli-ski guide. It was a job that came with sacrifices and risks, but for Tierney, the feeling of “floating down the mountain through widely spaced trees, smashing through pillows of snow, and dropping into a bottomless white room without another track in sight” was worth it. That is until she fell from the sky. In this personal account for Outside, Tierney details the trip that ended in disaster — when the helicopter she was flying in with her group crashed onto the mountain. 

Time seemed to stop. I was suddenly in a dream state, suspended, watching myself stare open-mouthed at Jim. He allowed his training to take over and skillfully put the machine into an autorotation to prevent a catastrophic nosedive into the mountain. I didn’t speak. I felt like I was floating on a cloud and watching a film strip of green, white, and gray unravel before my eyes. I thought, “This isn’t so bad.”

Then, in an instant, I felt the hardest impact I’ve ever experienced. A jolt of pain and energy spiked through my back, traveling up my spine. My hands flew up like I was on an amusement park ride, momentarily suspended in the air while they fought gravity. The clipboard I’d been holding in my lap bounced up. I tried to catch it with my hands. The metal edge of it grazed my pinky finger, drawing blood. I slammed down in my seat.

Everything was white. Then dark. And silent. Except for the voice inside my head wondering if this was the moment I was going to die.

Tierney had three compression fractures in her thoracic spine from the crash. That explained her pain, but what was not explained were the other symptoms she continued to experience: her exhaustion, her anxiety. Tierney’s accident occurred at the brink of a new awareness of the complicated nature of concussion and PTSD, but it still took a long time for her to obtain this diagnosis, and many more years for her to understand the intricacies of this hidden trauma — and what it would take to ever get back into a helicopter. 

 My body and nervous system were in a constant state of fight or flight, running constantly from the “what-ifs” and “almosts” that consumed my thought patterns. I craved sleep, but it only made me more tired. I wanted silence, but the pressure in my head felt so loud. Quiet walks in the woods should have been healing, but the visual overload of colors and patterns made me dizzy and stumble. There were no casts, no crutches, no evident reason for my state. My injuries were invisible, except for the fading scar on my finger.

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The Heavy Burden of Breasts

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A psychiatrist told Daniel Valter Jensen that “you can’t live like a something in between,” yet that is precisely what he had been doing for many years, waiting for the top surgery he needed to continue his transformation to male from the female body he was born into. In this searing account for Information, Line Vaaben explores the 10 years Daniel spent in limbo waiting for surgery — years spent struggling with addiction and homelessness. Daniel lives in Denmark, where transgender acceptance has increased in recent years, along with a corresponding rise in inquiries about surgery: “In 2013 at Rigshospitalet, 65 people were referred for examination. By 2019 the figure had climbed 600 percent.” However, in the years prior, many trans people were denied surgery, and in 2010 Daniel was one of them. After being turned down for gender transition, Daniel located a doctor willing to prescribe testosterone for trans women, not caring that it wasn’t legal.

A four-milliliter bottle of testosterone costs 1200 Danish kroner – about 200 dollars. Daniel gently draws the small bottle from his backpack and places it on the table in the doctor’s waiting room. He calls it »my elixir« and gets the injections from his GP every three months. If he delays, he becomes teary and his period returns. He’s had to delay buying his antidepressant and blood pressure medicine, and even skimping on cat food to afford testosterone.

But recently his application for free medicine was approved and he felt greatly relieved.

»Daniel?«

An elderly man in jeans, shirt and Birkenstock sandals summons Daniel into the consulting room. That’s Daniel’s doctor, Jesper Nielsen, who holds up syringe and bottle and draws back the plunger. Daniel lies on the examining table, his striped boxer shorts down, exposing his right buttock. The doctor pierces the skin with the needle and slowly injects the liquid, then pats on a small band aid.

Daniel is finally scheduled to have his top surgery in January 2020, and his excitement is palpable, despite being unable to stick to his doctor’s prerequisite to give up smoking: “There is always a risk of the nipples being lost … And smoking is especially damaging to the nipples.” Sigrid Nygaard documents the surgical process alongside Vaaben’s words with incredibly powerful, honest, and sometimes graphic photographs. After the surgery Daniel, finally, feels on the road to becoming “just a normal guy.”

Hours pass. His head clears. He texts a few friends. He texts his supervisor from The Homeless Unit. And a lot of hearts and smiley tumble back at him. Four years earlier, when he was homeless, he’d felt completely alone in the world. But now he feels the love and care of so many people.

He’s still feeling the anesthetic, so everything makes him cry: When another text message dings. When the nurse carries in a plate of meatballs. When he hears Bee Gees’ ’To Love Somebody’ in the background of a car commercial on television.

He’s not sad. Simply overwhelmed. It’s been a long time since he’s cried that much. Years come to think of it. Perhaps it’s release from the frustrations of a lifetime that now flow out of him. Again and again, he pats his hands along his chest. The breasts are gone! He’d had to wait so many years and then, it only took an hour-and-a-half.

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How Vocal Injury Can Change You

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Like most people, I hate hearing a recording of my voice — cringing and pleading for it to be turned off. However, I had not given my objections much consideration, until reading John Colapinto’s excellent piece on speech for The Guardian. Our own voice is the only one we hear differently from other people — what we hear when we speak does not come through the air, but in vibrations that pass through the hard and soft tissues of our head and neck. There is often a mismatch in who we know ourselves to be, and how we try to project onto the world, and yet “we remain mercifully deaf to how we perform this ideal self, in a bid to ‘put ourselves across’, to make an impression.”

Colapinto had never much considered his own voice either — until he nearly lost it. A serious vocal strain affected the way he spoke for years and eventually forced him to confront what is lost when your voice is hindered, and nuances of emotion can no longer be conveyed. In fact, our ability to speak is what has given us an evolutionary edge, “it enabled early humans – a relatively slow-running, physically weak, easily preyed-upon animal – to plan and cooperate and strategize with each other to outsmart bigger, faster, more lethal predators.” Aristotle defined the voice as “the sound produced by a creature possessing a soul,” and this deeply personal essay will help you understand why.

Consequently, he said, I had done what many people with my injury do: I had developed strategies for, as he put it, “speaking around the problem” – retraining my recurrent laryngeal nerve (the nerve that, among other things, controls the tension on the vocal cords) to drop the pitch of my voice, slackening my freighted vocal membrane so that the 3 or 4% that was still pliable would vibrate. This reduced the rattle in my voice, but at a cost. It was robbing me of the natural variation in pitch and volume that people use to give colour, animation, expression and personality to their utterances – what linguists call prosody, the melody of everyday speech.

Through prosody, we express tenderness, or anger, or enthusiasm, or any number of other nuanced emotional states that give the human voice its peculiar power to woo, persuade, threaten, cajole and mollify. Prosody makes the difference between the affectless utterances of HAL, the computer in 2001, and the rich and expressive instrument of Morgan Freeman or Meryl Streep – or even just the lilting, songlike way you say “Hello” when you answer the phone, so your caller doesn’t think you’re a machine. The term comes from the ancient Greek: pros, meaning “toward”, and ody, meaning “song”. We speak toward song. Except I didn’t any more, according to Zeitels.

“You’re behaving through a veil of monotone,” he went on. “When you talk, you can’t express emotion properly. You can’t change pitch, can’t get loud, can’t do the normal things that a voice does to express how you feel.”

 

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The Household Covid Budget

Full length of young female friends using smart phones while relaxing on bed at home during slumber party

Since the arrival of Covid-19 even popping to the shop for some milk has become a risk — and if you live with people, it is also a risk for them. In a shared housing situation figuring out what is acceptable behavior has become harder, and even the clearest advice “doesn’t address many of the subtle situations in which we find ourselves.” Gregory Barber asks in Wired what to do if you are a group of six people, including polyamorous members, living together in a house share? For such a group in San Francisco, the answer lay in maths — they came up with a calculator to work out risk, giving each other a points budget to use each week. 

Some activities were trickier to translate into points. First dates, in particular, would trigger a reversion to what Olsson calls a “one-off person-risk estimate.” The fact-finding missions these estimates required were a little strange and intrusive. The housemates wanted to know how often a new person shopped for groceries, who they lived with. Were they a gym rat? An ER doctor? Bachar found these interrogations uncomfortable. It felt as if she was implying that her friends were behaving badly. But others felt the questions were a reasonable concession to the pandemic. Dobro says that polyamory had prepared her for these awkward conversations around trade-offs. “We’re used to having conversations that are linked to risk,” she says. If you choose to be indoors with someone, the roommates agreed, make it count. Make it a deep conversation. Make it sex.

This was a house share better suited to calculating risk than most — Olsson works for a Silicon Valley foundation on projects that seek to mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of advanced AI — and the other residents, to various degrees, are adherents to “rationalist modes of thinking.” The calculator this particular house came up with has now been used around the world — including by Bob Wachter, the chair of internal medicine at UC San Francisco and a frequent public commentator on all matters Covid-19.

Olsson called their risk points microcovids, in a tip of the hat to Howard, and one microcovid equaled a one-in-a-million chance of catching the virus. They pulled epidemiology papers from Google Scholar and gathered around the table in the hearth to go through the data. The first step was to impose a top-line risk budget that would anchor all of their calculations. They debated this question at length. Olsson floated the idea of 10,000 microcovids per person per year—the equivalent of a 1 percent chance of catching Covid. But what was the actual cost of 10,000 microcovids? By their estimations, for people their age, a 1 percent chance of getting sick was about as risky as driving, which was something they did without thinking. And besides, they figured, if other people who could stay home kept to a similar budget, the hospitals would not overflow. The virus might even disappear.

To some extent, governments around the world are using their version of Covid point calculators. It may seem strange that in some areas regulations mean we cannot meet friends while children are still going to school, but it is how risk has been allocated across a community to keep it at an acceptable level. 

This was the initial premise of shutdowns and social distancing and sheltering in place. Our common infection budget was tied to hospital capacity—the number of ICU beds and respirators and medical staff able to respond. For those who could work from home, the task was to contribute as little as possible to the overall sum. This left more points for those who couldn’t. Then, as the first infection curve began to flatten, the foundation of the societal budget seemed to shift. Yes, we still had to worry about public health, but that concern was being stretched by other considerations: business closures, job losses, some ideal of liberty, the desire to eat burritos.

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Leap of Faith

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Last July, an apartment in the Grenoble suburb of La Villeneuve caught on fire and quickly became an inescapable inferno of flames and smoke. Two young boys stood on the balcony, desperate to escape, but with no way out behind them. They had to jump. 

In her description for the BBC, Myriam Lahouari examines the seven men who stood on the ground ready to catch them. These men were strangers to the boys, and to each other, but shared in their bravery — catching a child flying through the air like a cannonball is no mean feat, and several received injuries requiring surgery in the attempt.

Ten-year-old Sofiane is much bigger and heavier than his brother. Mouhsine, a former security forces officer with the Royal Palace in Rabat, looks up and tries to estimate. About 40 kilos, he guesses. He knows the force will be much more difficult to absorb.

Guelord is to his right, strong enough, Mouhsine reckons, that between them they can lock together to brace against the impact. He grabs the 29-year-old’s arm.

The men are worried – they can’t see Sofiane. But he soon reappears through the thickening smoke. He climbs through the open window to sit on the sill. His feet dangle over the edge, and he looks down at the ground.

The men wait. It seems like an eternity but it’s only a few seconds. Finally, he levers himself over the windowsill, hangs, then lets go. 

His right foot strikes Mouhsine, his left foot Guelord. Both fall under the impact. Mouhsine screams in pain. The bone in his wrist looks deformed. Guelord realises he has broken his thumb. Walid has fractured his wrist, Lucas his hand. Bilal is thought to have broken a finger.  

But Sofiane is unharmed. “He landed directly into our arms,” says Walid.  Elyasse weeps in relief. “The two children were unscathed – it’s a miracle,” he reflects.

“We didn’t have much time to discuss and decide, everything was done by instinct,” adds Mouhsine.

The seven men are all from the local area, and their efforts, along with the dozens of other residents involved in the rescue effort, highlighted a real sense of community. Not many people realize that this camaraderie exists in La Villeneuve, an area with such a bad reputation that the address has become “so stigmatized that its young residents struggle to get a job.” Does this suburb deserve this image, or did “the catch” prove it to be something different? There is certainly a troubled history here — the men who saved the boys are all immigrants — on an estate that ten years previously erupted in violent rioting that provoked an anti-immigration speech by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the summer of 2010, a man from La Villeneuve was suspected of stealing from a local casino, and was killed in the police shoot-out that followed. His death triggered three nights of looting and arson in the area. A few days later Sarkozy made a hard-hitting and widely criticised security speech in Grenoble.

“We are seeing the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently controlled immigration, which have ended in the failure of integration,” he said. “We are so proud of our integration system. Perhaps we need to wake up? To see what it has produced. It worked. It doesn’t work any more.” 

He called for foreign-born residents threatening the police to be stripped of their citizenship.

 

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The Unseen in a Pandemic without Technology

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Zoom has become a lifeline for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if you’re not allowed to use it? Michael Barajas explains in The Texas Observer that the majority of Texas state lockups still don’t have video visitation, and, with in-person visitation suspended, thousands of people have spent nine months in near-total isolation from their families. For the children of inmates, this can be particularly difficult — at a young age not seeing a parent for a long time can render them a stranger: “Justin still tries to communicate by phone with his son but months without seeing each other has made him painfully distant.” Visitation is a lifeline even for those without children, with the social ties it creates vitally important to rehabilitation, especially during frightening times —  more people incarcerated in Texas are dying “from COVID-19 than in any other prison system.” Without the comfort of family, even via video, mental health in prisons has faced an inevitable decline. 

Even before the pandemic hit, suicides and suicide attempts inside the Texas prison system were already the highest they’d been since the 1990s. By September of this year, more people incarcerated by TDCJ had taken their own lives than in all of 2019. One of them was Ricky Hernandez, 26, who struggled with mental illness throughout his life, according to his family. Treatment records show Ricky was hospitalized for a major depressive disorder and put on multiple psychiatric medications before he entered prison in 2017 on charges of harassment and violating a protective order. Henry, his older brother, says that Ricky struggled in prison because of his illness. To try and cheer him up, a big group of family members used to visit him every other week at the Coffield Unit, the East Texas prison where he lived in solitary confinement

“It was always me, my mom, some aunts, our brother and sisters, just as many as could make it because we knew he liked seeing us,” Henry says. At the start of most visits, his brother seemed on edge, eyes darting around the room, but usually seemed to relax somewhere in the middle, he says. “I think we helped settle him down.” 

Henry says his brother stopped writing as frequently after visitation stopped in March. Prison officials called the family in early May to say Ricky had tried to take his own life. Then, on May 22, Ricky was “discovered unresponsive and hanging in his cell,” according to a report the prison filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office. After his death, someone housed near Ricky wrote to the family claiming that officers hadn’t checked on him for hours before his death. For months, Henry has called the prison system’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which investigates deaths in custody, asking whether his brother was treated for mental illness or checked on by guards the day he died. They have yet to give him any answers. OIG did not respond to the Observer’s questions about Ricky’s death.

 

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2020: One Year, Lifetime Consequences

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As a partner at True Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital group, Om Malik is easily able to work from home during the pandemic — a privilege he does not take lightly. In his ebook, The Longest Year, he reflects from his unique perspective on both the benefits technology has brought us, and the disparity it has created.

How often have you seen images of kids sitting in the parking lots of fast-food restaurants to access WiFi and attend their classes over Zoom? The Federal Communications Commission says that over 21 million people in the U.S. lack high-speed connectivity, though it should not be surprising that this is most likely a significant undercount.

Even from his more privileged position, Malik finds isolation hard, as he lives through not only the pandemic but the devastating wildfires that hit California, turning his home of San Francisco into a world where the “colors that one normally associates with movies such as Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, Mad Max, and Dune are all around us …” In this ebook, Malik journals his thoughts throughout the year that was 2020, allowing us to see, and learn from, his personal struggles over hundreds of days of self-isolation. 

I recently found myself on a beach off the California hamlet of Bolinas in the middle of a seasonal transition. For a couple of hours, I watched multiple whales frolicking in the waters as they dove for food. I am not enough of a nature expert to say for certain if these were the blue whales that have been making appearances in Northern California. I could see these with my naked eye. It was easy to find them, as well, because the ocean was relatively calm. A gigantic, ever-changing swarm of sea birds was also taking part in this alfresco dining.

The sight in front of me was a reminder of the gentle rotation of the planet, which will keep going long after I am gone. Similarly, these whales will migrate elsewhere. 

Locked in my cave, as I have been for the last many months, I feel the passage of time. I don’t mean that in a rigid, mathematical sense. I feel its ebbs and flows. Time has fluidity and adaptability. It is fungible, only represented in the rhythms of the world around us. As I grow older, I realize that impermanence and time are part of the same journey. The biggest lesson of standing in place — especially during this pandemic — is the importance of listening to the heart’s rhythm and letting that define what time and life are.

Malik also thinks beyond his personal experience — considering the human psyche that quickly moved from selflessness at the start of the pandemic, to our social media “post-algorithmic reality,” where it is every man for himself. Malik goes on to share interesting reflections on the huge shift to humankind that the pandemic has fast-forwarded, and how “we are in a period of extreme, rapid change that will redefine how we interact with the world around us.”

Now as we prepare to welcome 2021, we are changed in many ways. Perhaps most significantly, the distinctions between our physical and digital worlds have largely disintegrated. We now work and we live online just as much, if not more, than we do offline. We may have always been heading this way, but this year significantly — and irreversibly — accelerated our pace. Transitioning to this new normal comes with tremendous opportunity, but we must remain aware that some will require assistance to make the adjustment.

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The Music of the Cave

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Cueva de los Tayos — Cave of the Oilbirds — is a giant cave in the Andes guarded over by the Shuar, the Indigenous people of the region. This cave has compelled visitors for hundreds of years, who have linked it to UFOs, ancient metal tablets, and burial grounds. Writing for Outside, David Kushner tells us how the allure of this cave even reached as far as Scotland, to a civil engineer named Stan Hall. 

As a young married man in Dunbar, a seaside town near Edinburgh, he was a mild-mannered civil engineer with a bookish interest in science, history, and travel. “He got interested in explorers,” ­Eileen says. “People like Lawrence of Arabia who would go off into the unknown.” Reading about Tayos in The Gold of the Gods captured his imagination like nothing before. Von Däniken claimed that an Argentine-Hungarian explorer, Juan Moricz, had taken him to the cave, where they found the tablets that, he wrote, “might contain a synopsis of the history of humanity, as well as an account of the origin of mankind on earth and information of a vanished civilization.”

The fantastical account gripped Hall, who on a whim decided to write to Neil Armstrong and invite him to take a trip to the cave in 1976. Armstrong, recently world-famous from his moon walk, could draw enormous attention to the venture, and as Hall had learned, the astronaut had Scottish roots, so he just might consider the idea. To Hall’s shock, Armstrong wrote back saying he was interested. With that letter in hand, Hall approached both the British and Ecuadorean governments, which agreed to provide funding and helicopter transportation to the site. Within a year, Hall had organized one of the largest cave expeditions of his time.

After Stan Hall passed away, his daughter, Eileen, also felt the call of the cave. Kushner joins her on one of her expeditions and discovers that her motivation is very different from that of her father. Eileen is not treasure hunting in the traditional sense, feeling “a growing sense of alienation in a male-dominated adventure narrative,” Eileen was drawn to the spiritual side of the cave. She wants to record music there, an idea, which after some resistance, was welcomed to help “spread the word about the fragility of the region’s landscape and the Shuar people.” And so it is with musical instruments that Kushner descends with her into the deep. 

The deeper we go into Tayos, the more spectacular it becomes. We step into a giant cavern, which I nickname King Kong’s Palace. Boulders cover the ground like fallen ruins, and the cave’s ceiling looms at least a couple hundred feet overhead. In the distance, there’s another passageway with perfectly smooth walls that rise and meet at close to a right angle.

Around the corner, we come to the gargantuan Main Chamber. It could hold a 20-story building lying on its side, and it’s just as tall. The light from our headlamps fades before it reaches the far side. The ground is rocky, lunar, and black, but unlike the moon it’s teeming with life. Giant brown tarantulas stroll between stones. I catch the glimmer of the silvery back of a three-inch beetle before it scurries into the shadows. On a small boulder, we spy what looks like a steampunk insect, part flesh, part machine. It’s an Amblypygi, or whip spider, and as we get closer, we see that it has a beetle in its mandibles.

After pitching our tents and filling up on lentils and rice, we fall asleep to the cries of the oilbirds, which gradually fade to silence.

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